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The State of MSNBC: When One Lean Forward Becomes Two Steps Backward

”Being progressive isn’t the problem, it’s the solution,“ former MSNBC anchor and host of The Young Turks Cenk Uygur tells TheWrap

In the fall of 2011, MSNBC was riding high.

Occupy Wall Street had ignited a sleeping giant, funneling disenchanted Americans of all ages to Zucotti Park and cities across America to rail against corporate greed and capitalism gone wild. The movement, along with the buildup to a pivotal presidential election, led to record ratings for MSNBC, which had firmly found its footing as a megaphone for progressiveness.

I would know–I was there.

As a booking producer from 2011-2012, I witnessed the excitement swirling around the newsroom as anchors hosted from the protest scene; the fever pitch behind an election with very high stakes.

Three years later, MSNBC, under new Chairman Andy Lack, took a chainsaw to its daytime lineup, canceling three opinion programs last Thursday, and will soon tinker with its primetime lineup, morphing into more of an NBC News-lite.

A decision that’s likely to doom the network to a permanent third place finish.

Cenk Uygur, who rose to digital fame as host of the progressive web show “The Young Turks,” and previously anchored for MSNBC, isn’t buying what the network’s selling.

“Being progressive isn’t the problem, it’s the solution,” he told TheWrap about the “Lean Forward” network.

“You shouldn’t lean in any direction, you should go boldly in one direction or another. And you certainly should have an idea which direction you’re going.”

A network veteran, who’s worked on both the news and opinion side, isn’t sold on the hard news pivot either: “They’re trying something that’s already been tried 15 years ago,” the producer, who asked for anonymity, told TheWrap.

Under Lack is MSNBC president Phil Griffin, pegged by many in the industry as a vision-less executive who programs by responding to short-term ratings success instead of crafting a long-term strategy. At a network town hall last week, Griffin answered one incredulous primetime producer on why MSNBC’s top brass are again embracing traditional news. “What makes you think this is going to change anything?” the producer asked.

MSNBC AnchorsGriffin answered that times have changed from when MSNBC tried hard news a decade ago, which “wasn’t the right time to do that.”  He added that in 2015, MSNBC, with an assist from NBC News, now has the  proper resources to do breaking news well, which they didn’t have in its early days.

Another producer who heard Griffin’s spiel strongly disagrees: “The notion that audiences are jonesing for another breaking news network, from MSNBC no less, is managerial ineptitude comparable to that of the New York Mets,” she told TheWrap.

But to understand why MSNBC’s hard news shift won’t work, it’s necessary to look at what got it to this point.  In the 2000’s, MSNBC had no real identity.

“They had Scarborough, a conservative pushing Republican talking points, in the morning for three hours,” Uygur continued, adding that they had Chris Matthews, “who shifts in the wind,” one minute thinking George Bush belonged on Mount Rushmore and the next getting a thrill up his leg, courtesy of Barack Obama.

Everything changed when Keith Olbermann rocketed to stardom, lighting a fire under 30 Rock’s executive seats by all-but rejecting the segments produced for him at 8 p.m. in favor of unabashed Bush bashing.

Ratings followed, along with a more nuanced, Olbermann-approved partner in crime in Rachel Maddow. MSNBC filled the rest of its progressive playhouse with a variety of firebrands, like socialist Lawrence O’Donnell and pro-union loudmouth Ed Schultz.

After President Obama was reelected, MSNBC saw a ratings dip similar to other media outlets. But the car went from skidding to falling off a cliff as 2014’s third quarter produced the worst ratings in seven years; the network’s total numbers last year bumped it back to number three in cable news in the younger demo.

NPR TV critic Eric Deggans diagnosed the problem as a breakdown of talent. “After Olbermann left, they had a real hard time trying to mint new anchors that would hold on to the audiences Olbermann and Maddow had pioneered,” he told TheWrap.

But the network did develop one personality that resonated during the post-Olbermann era. Ed Schultz was doing well in the all-important 8 p.m. time slot, drawing close to a million viewers in the final quarter of 2012, nearing Olbermann’s numbers during his heyday.

In a dumbfounding move, Griffin yanked Schultz in March 2013, demoting him to weekend Siberia. His replacement: a wonkish, witty, younger Chris Hayes.

Hayes’ more nuanced style–a hit on his weekend show–didn’t translate in primetime. He consistently came in third or fourth place in viewers and demo viewers behind Maddow and Matthews. Al Sharpton has also failed at 6 p.m.–watch no further than Saturday Night Live’s merciless skewering for more.

And of course there was the failed Ronan Farrow experiment at 1 p.m. After becoming enamored by Farrow over dinner, Griffin came away convinced the 27-year-old former Rhodes scholar would be his next star. But Farrow, with zero previous hosting experience, flamed out in the afternoons, stuck as a baby-faced personality trying to pull of a traditional cable news show sandwiched between Viagra commercials.

His show was canceled in less than a year. Farrow’s poor-performance didn’t help Joy Reid, a favorite guest contributor turned host at 2 p.m. She also got the boot in under a year.

Alex Wagner's "Now" and Ed Schultz's "Ed Show" Canceled (MSNBC)


There was also the failed, five-minute Alec Baldwin program, a case study for when hiring stars for the sake of being stars goes wrong.

All of these moves had one thing in common: short-term thinking rather than being part of a long term vision; one where MSNBC would stake its claim as the proud media champion for liberalism–a network that would give you the news, but more importantly, fight for the progress its audience yearned for.

“They didn’t know if their mandate was to be progressive, to be objective anchors or just be pro-Democrats,” Uygur added. “Now they are going to have a conservative on for three hours in the morning, then be a second-rate CNN in the daytime and then have some progressives at night. What in the world is that brand?”

Whether MSNBC’s pivot to breaking news–including the upcoming addition of Brian Williams–produces an uptick in ratings or leads to a total collapse is up for debate. But executives should stop gazing at the view of Radio City Music Hall outside their offices long enough to visit rallies spreading across the country.

There’s a reason Bernie Sanders has attracted as many as 20,000 supporters at campaign stops: he’s speaking to the loud, populist anger at unfettered capitalism.

A notion, and viewer, MSNBC kind of, sort of, reached a few years ago, but all-but abandoned on Thursday.

A decision that’s one Lean Forward, but several damaging steps back.

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